Three Things To Do When You’re Falsely Accused

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 15, 2013 – 6:02 am

This is an excerpt from my new book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.

After beating charges of larceny and fraud in 1987, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan famously asked, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” Although the media are often right, you probably don’t need much convincing that they have convicted innocent people far too many times:

  • After the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing that killed one person and injured more than 100, the media presented local security guard Richard Jewell as the likely culprit. He was innocent.    
  • Many outlets implied that California Rep. Gary Condit was involved in the death of intern Chandra Levy, who disappeared in Washington, DC in 2001. Although the two had a sexual relationship, Mr. Condit was innocent.
  • In 2006, three male Duke University lacrosse players were accused of raping a female student at a house party. The media portrayed them as out-of-control, entitled athletes. They were innocent.

    Falsely accused Olympic hero Richard Jewell

When the media have you in their sights, it can be difficult to mount a successful defense. But there are at least three tactics that can help you survive the glare of the media spotlight:

  1. 1. Be “super” open: The media tend to perceive those who talk as innocent and those who don’t as guilty. When you’re falsely accused, nothing is as disarming to a reporter as a spokesperson who eagerly shares information. Meet with the reporter. Go to his or her office. Your mere presence will force most reporters to reevaluate whether you’re guilty as charged.
  2. 2. Bring a lawyer: Although hiding behind a wall of attorneys can be viewed as defensive, it may be your best option if a news organization is about to report an inaccurate story. Threatening a libel suit may make the news organization reconsider running the piece, particularly if you bring substantial evidence to convince them they’re wrong.
  3. 3. Offer your own proof: In some cases, there is a place for harder-edged tactics. Crisis pro Eric Dezenhall argues that sometimes you have to “do the media’s job for them.” That means you might hire a private investigator to look into the background of any accusers or conduct a “parallel” investigation to uncover facts that your critics aren’t finding—or are purposely ignoring.

CASE STUDY: TACO BELL AGGRESSIVELY REBUTS FALSE CHARGE

When an Alabama law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Taco Bell in 2011 for allegedly using less than 50 percent ground beef in its beef filling, the fast-food giant responded aggressively.

The company took out a full-page ad that corrected the record in major newspapers. They claimed their tacos used 88 percent beef and 12 percent spices and other ingredients, and said they “plan to take legal action against those who have made false claims against our seasoned beef.”

The law firm dropped its suit within three months, to which Taco Bell responded with another ad asking, “Would it kill you to say you’re sorry? As for the lawyers who brought this suit: You got it wrong, and you’re probably feeling pretty bad right about now. But you know what always helps? Saying to everyone, ‘I’m sorry.’” Taco Bell’s aggressive response isn’t right for every company in crisis—but in their case, it was a brilliant strategy that effectively diminished the crisis.

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Does Denying False Rumors Cause More Harm?

Written by Brad Phillips on May 5, 2011 – 6:42 am

If you’ve ever been the subject of a false allegation, you already know that corrections rarely receive as much attention as the original charges against you.

Public relations professionals have long struggled with the right way to handle false allegations after the truth finally emerges. On one hand, companies could benefit from correcting the record as widely as possible; on the other hand, doing so keeps the conversation alive.

In my experience, most companies opt for a cautious approach that seeks primarily to move on, rather than an aggressive one aimed at correcting the record. A recent article published in The Economist supports their strategy. Three psychologists with the Kellogg School of Management and Stanford Business School concluded that:

“People who read rebuttals tend to forget the denial and remember only the rumor…Instead of denying false rumors, a company should put out a stream of positive messages about itself.”

 

Their approach is right. For some companies. Sometimes.

But public relations practitioners would be well-advised not to put too much stock in their study. More aggressive responses are a vital part of the PR toolkit, and companies occasionally benefit from fighting back.

Taco Bell’s recent strategy offers a great case in point. When sued in a class action lawsuit for allegedly using only 33 percent ground beef in its “ground beef,” the company swiftly denied the charges and said they used 88 percent beef, plus fillings and spices.

When the law firm bringing the lawsuit dropped its case, Taco Bell didn’t quietly move on. It ran full-page ads in many of the nation’s top newspapers – including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times – saying, in part:

“We hope the voluntary withdrawal of this lawsuit receives as much public attention as when it was filed. As for the lawyers who brought this suit: You got it wrong, and you’re probably feeling pretty bad right about now. But you know what always helps? Saying to everyone, ‘I’m sorry.’"

 

In addition, Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed recently said he was contemplating legal action against the law firm, earning even more press attention for the scurrilous charges and subsequent correction.

I admire Taco Bell’s bold approach. It will probably prove successful. But if the three psychologists had their way, Taco Bell’s executive team would have forgone its strategy to rebut the accusation and elected to “pump out positive messages” instead. And that well-reasoned, smart-sounding strategy would have been very, very wrong.

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Related: Taco Bell’s Great Crisis Management (By Steve Bauer)

Related: Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes


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Taco Bell’s Great Crisis Management

Written by Brad Phillips on April 22, 2011 – 12:50 am

Editor’s note: Today’s article is a guest post from Steve Bauer, a communications pro from Pennsylvania. He wrote a terrific story about Taco Bell’s great crisis response – a rare of example of a company getting it exactly right. Steve graciously agreed to allow me to run his story here.

Your company is hit with a scandalous accusation. The case makes national headlines. Consumers assume your product is "tainted." And in the end, there’s nothing to the story. All that bad publicity had to have an impact. And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Who’s going to pay?

That’s apparently the scenario that Taco Bell is dealing with right now. As SteveBauerMedia reported last January, the fast food giant was sued for allegedly using less than 50% beef in its Taco filling. Back then SBM advised:

"In a case like this Taco Bell needs to do more than issue a statement on its web site, threaten legal action, and hunker down to see if it will all blow over."


Apparently Taco Bell took our advice because the company came out swinging – with full-page ads in major newspapers. CEO Greg Creed angrily denounced the lawsuit, stating that Taco Bell’s tacos contain 88% beef and 12% spices and other ingredients. Taco Bell vowed to fight.

This week, the original lawsuit was suddenly dropped.  According to the Associated Press, the law firm Beasley Allen, based in Montgomery, Alabama, says it dropped the lawsuit because Taco Bell changed its marketing and product disclosure information.  Taco Bell says it did no such thing.  Whatever.  The big question for Taco Bell now: how does the company rescue its reputation?

You’d think in a case like this that it’s difficult if not impossible to repair all the damage. But Taco Bell is doing a great job of crisis management. In major newspapers this week, Taco Bell placed full-page ads targeting that law firm in Alabama. The ads ask, quote:

"Would it kill you to say you’re sorry?… As for the lawyers who brought this suit: You got it wrong, and you’re probably feeling pretty bad right about now. But you know what always helps? Saying to everyone, ‘I’m sorry.’ C’mon, you can do it!"

 

In the ads, Taco Bell crows the company is making "no changes to our products or ingredients…no changes to our advertising." The best defense is a good offense. And we think Taco Bell is in a good position to turn lemons into lemonade – or in this case, ground beef into filet mignon.

What next? Should Taco Bell file a defamation lawsuit? That would keep the issue in the public eye, giving Taco Bell more opportunities to remind the public that it sells a quality product. Taco Bell needs to stay aggressive, because this could be a golden opportunity to re-energize the brand.

You can read the complete version of this story on Steve’s blog here.

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Related: Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes

Related: The Right Way to Communicate After a Crisis

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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